On Saturday nights, Channel 9 weekend newsreader Jo Hall makes a point of crossing to new Sunday Herald Sun editor Damon Johnston to get the scoop on the next day’s paper. What the 400,000 viewers never see is the crucial role of enthusiastic youngsters scurrying around readying the presses for that week’s vital edition.

Twelve months ago, Crikey reported on a curious situation within the ranks of News Limited’s predictably bulky, but usually story-free, Sunday Herald Sun.

It seemed the tabloid was exploiting Melbourne’s reservoir of hot-blooded journalistic ambition by employing lowly editorial assistants, usually responsible for administrative tasks, as real-world gumshoe reporters. At the time, the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance conveyed its outrage over newsroom extras “improperly directed to report and write major stories for the front of the newspaper as well as compile several pages at the back.”

EAs, of course, have traditionally been engaged to conduct administrative tasks like sending out prizes, grabbing coffee, and dealing with paperwork.

But if the latest information to reach the Crikey newsroom is any indication, not much has changed. Crikey understands that a small army of EAs continue to compile the Weddings, Your Pets, Hello Baby and reader travel sections, in violation of both their contract, and the union’s wishes.

At least one EA is believed to be regularly penning news stories featured prominently in the front half of the paper. The duties of this employee are notoriously ill-defined, with regular excursions into breaking news as well as advertorial filler.

When pushed, the Sunday Herald Sun says the babies and pets columns are advertising, rather than editorial, although there are substantial spiels attached to these sections.

The apparent cost pressures weighing on the whole of News Limited has meant the paper is scrambling to harness existing resources to avoid hiring new staff. EAs have reportedly been banned from bringing senior journalists coffee and have had their shifts cut to four hours with only the very brave venturing outside the HWT tower for a coffee break.

An Alliance spokesman confirmed to Crikey that although it was supportive of youngsters trying to get a foothold in the industry, “using editorial assistants in lieu of graded journalists is exploitative and makes a mockery of the skills and experience graded journalists bring to their work”.

Although the EAs’ pay rate is often greater than of an official cadetship, staff miss out on the training, conditions and career progression markers normally available to young journalists on the make. If the paper is serious about training its junior staff, then it should offer them a cadetship and grade them as an actual journalist, the union says.

Following the MEAA’s original bulletin a year ago, one former Sunday Herald Sun editorial assistant, Shannon Deery, was placed on an official agreement after the Alliance intervened. He continues to pen pieces for both the Sunday Herald Sun’s online edition and the weekday paper.

The Sunday Herald Sun has a storied history of preferring enthusiastic amateurs to the officially qualified. In a response to an audience question at the 2004 Melbourne Press Club Journalism Conference, HWT cadetship manager (and former cadet) Chris McLeod went out of his way to point out that graduates from elite journalism courses would struggle at News, with a preference for youngsters straight out of high school, that the paper could then mould in its image.

The latest revelations suggest that McLeod’s stance may have been taken a little too literally.